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September 1, 2014

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A mogul’s softer side

Sheldon Adelson plies his charm, but can’t suppress combative streak

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Leila Navidi

Sheldon Adelson in District Court on April 17, 2008, with his wife, Miriam, who during the trial helped the then-74-year-old casino mogul to the witness stand.

Adleson lawsuit

Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson, right, is assisted by his wife Miriam walking into District Court Thursday, April 17 for a trial resulting from a lawsuit by Hong Kong businessman Richard Suen. Launch slideshow »

Sheldon Adelson was forced into public view this week, providing a courtroom glimpse of the casino tycoon not offered in any annual report or official biography.

Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., viewed by his industry brethren as a ruthless, combative iconoclast, used the opportunity to cut a sympathetic, almost folksy portrait of himself.

The litigious 74-year-old found the tables turned on him, defending himself in a lawsuit by a Hong Kong business consultant who says Adelson cheated him out of millions of dollars.

So for two days there sat Adelson, the 12th-wealthiest person in the world according to Forbes, answering questions for a jury — not really of his peers — about how he got permission to open a casino in Macau.

His wife assisted him to the witness stand, gripping him around the waist as he limped and used a slim black cane with his right hand. His foot was heavily wrapped because, he said without elaborating outside the courtroom, it was broken in four places.

And he was accorded some privileges — such as taking the witness stand before jurors were seated, meaning the jurors wouldn’t see his difficulty in walking, and being allowed to take his Starbucks coffee along with him, when normally only water is allowed.

On the stand, he was polite, sometimes humorous and animated — if not also occasionally long-winded and argumentative.

He repeatedly scolded an opposing attorney for asking and rephrasing questions that Adelson said he had already answered.

“You’re playing cutesy lawyer again,” he said with a smirk.

But even his own attorneys grew frustrated when Adelson, answering questions from the opposing lawyer, said more than he needed to and the judge herself told Adelson he could stop talking.

He was rambunctious, too, before he even took the stand. From the front row, where he sat with his wife, Miriam, and sometimes one of two bodyguards, he would occasionally hand instructions to his legal team, which included Sam Lionel of the politically connected law firm Lionel, Sawyer & Collins. At one point, a high-priced lawyer from Houston had to admonish Adelson to “shushhhh.”

The most interesting personal details to come from Adelson’s testimony: that he suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a disorder affecting the nervous system.

As a result, he had to take as many as 25 pills a day and, he said, “I was like Rip Van Winkle” and was “out of it” for days at a time when the pain was intense, over a six- to eight-month period. That was why, Adelson said, he didn’t recall details of his casino negotiations with the consultant.

As for any images of Adelson the tyrant, here’s how he addressed the fact that some crucial negotiations were conducted by Bill Weidner, Adelson’s longtime second in command, without his knowledge.

“It’s not a crime punishable by death,” Adelson said. “Maybe (he should have been) smacked by a bunch of wet noodles ... but I still love him and have a lot of respect for him.”

Adelson presented himself as a compassionate billionaire who allowed his persistent brother, Leonard, to talk him into doing business with his friend Richard Suen. Suen is the consultant who is now suing Adelson.

“My brother was constantly calling me, almost on a daily basis, saying Richard is a great guy,” Adelson said. “I caved in to my brother. Even a strong guy gives in once in a while.”

When his lawyer showed Adelson a photo of him and Suen with the vice premier of China, Qian Qichen, Adelson quipped, “I don’t like my picture.” And he recalled that, when meeting China’s vice premier in 2001, he was advised not to broach the touchy subject of gaming.

“I was a good boy, like when my wife tells me to shut up, I shut up,” he said.

When speaking about the dozen or so casinos he intends to build in Macau in addition to the two already generating billions of dollars for his company, Adelson, who will spend some $12 billion in the coming years there, put on an air of humility.

“It’s difficult, coming where I come from, to say ‘billion,’ “ he said.

Still, Adelson — calling himself a “serial deal maker” — said that he’d rather have been looking for new business opportunities this week than telling an eight-member jury how he rose to financial heights in Macau.

“I’d do that today if I could stop the trial and go back to work,” he said.

But on this day, Adelson was not in control.

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